Looking Down the Path

Director Carolann Ouellette maps the next steps for Maine Huts and Trails

Before Carolann Ouellette moved to Maine to build a career in tourism and the outdoors, she did a short stint as a PanAm flight attendant. It’s hard to imagine the executive director of Maine Huts and Trails, whose resume includes several years as a whitewater rafting guide, serving cocktails in the confines of an airplane. But her father was a PanAm pilot, so after graduating from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, Ouellette signed on to work at the glamorous, now-defunct airline, flying out of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. “We grew up flying PanAm, finding my dad and visiting him wherever he was,” she says. “But I was definitely not cut out to be a flight attendant.”

Ouellette instead came to the Maine woods. She and her family had vacationed at Attean Lake Lodge in Jackman, where her grandparents had a long history, and Ouellette eventually worked there for a few college summers. She and her family would drive up from their home in New Jersey to join them, and Ouellette worked at the lodge for a few college summers.

“I thought if I could live in a cabin in the woods off the grid, I would be the happiest person in the world,” she says. She traded in the iconic blue PanAm suit for rain pants and a lifejacket, and trained to be a whitewater rafting guide, working for Matt Polstein at what was then the New England Whitewater Center in Caratunk, now the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) in Millinocket. Ouellette spent eight years there, eventually working on the operations side to manage reservations and food and beverage. She considers Polstein a mentor. “He taught me about big-picture things, but then bringing it right back down to your business and how it works, what the expectations are and how they shift,” she says. In 1995, she left NEOC to open a restaurant, Moose Point Tavern in Jackman, which she operated for ten years until she was asked to apply for a position at the Maine Office of Tourism. She became the agency’s director in 2011, and was credited with helping the state’s largest industry to grow, in part by developing an innovative marketing approach with targeted campaigns for different demographics.

“It was a superb opportunity for me,” Ouellette says of her six years as director of the Maine Office of Tourism. She traveled extensively, including trips overseas, and built a large network of significant contacts. “There are so many other industries that either wanted to know about tourism in Maine or wanted to try and connect in some way.” But she missed the woods of western Maine, and a call from Maine Huts and Trails board chair Bob Peixotto offered a way to return. He invited her to interview for the position vacated by former executive director Charlie Woodworth, who ran the Kingfield-based network of backcountry trails and eco-lodges for three and a half years. Ouellette came on board in January, knowing that her primary charge would be to raise the profile of the organization, going into its tenth year. “We are really at a point where there are all kinds of ways to move and forge ahead,” she says.

Conceived in the 1970s by Larry Warren, who helped turn Sugarloaf into a destination and Carrabassett Valley into a town, Maine Huts and Trails counts 2018 as its tenth anniversary because the first of its four eco-lodges—Poplar Hut—opened 10 years ago. The nonprofit organization now operates 80 miles of trails, primarily on land it does not own; one of Warren’s major contributions was to negotiate with landowners, including the Penobscot Nation, for easements that would allow the trails to be built. Inspired by the Appalachian Mountain Club’s trail network in the White Mountains, hut-to-hut systems in the Alps, and New Zealand’s Milford Track, a 33-mile trail with three remote huts, Maine Huts and Trails offers an accessible wilderness experience for hikers, mountain bikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers. Use of the well-maintained trails is free, and guests at the huts pay a modest fee for meals and overnight accommodations in simple bunkrooms. The off-the-grid huts offer light-filled common rooms with woodstoves, modern bathrooms, and commercial kitchens—all solar- or hydro- powered.

Within the next three to five years, Maine Huts and Trails plans to build two more huts and an additional 40 miles of trails, extending the network west toward Rangeley. A committee has already been tasked with mapping the trails and identifying landowners along the route; the next step will be to gather input from staff, members, and guests. While the design of each successive hut has evolved, Ouellette stresses the importance of staying true to Warren’s vision, as well as being good neighbors. “We want to continue to not supersede people who are running sporting camps or traditional lodging properties, so how do we tweak the model that we have already developed?”

One of the organization’s long-term goals is building the next generation of environmental stewards, both youth and adults, says Ouellette. “I want us to be seen as a go-to organization for what environmentally sensitive economic development looks like.” In addition to the composting toilets in the bathrooms— familiar to every hut visitor because of the prominently displayed posters explaining how they work—this includes using locally sourced food and supplies to reduce the carbon footprint of long- distance transportation. The quality of the food at the huts is something Ouellette plans to promote more vigorously, crediting director of operations Sarah Pine with creating sophisticated menus and nurturing relationships with local farmers. In addition to established events like the annual Harvest at the Hut, a multi-course dinner held every fall at the Stratton Brook Hut, Ouellette sees an opportunity for more food-related programming, such as cooking classes.

Another goal for Ouellette is developing the organization’s reputation as an “employer of choice.” Maine Huts and Trails employs 11 full-time staffers year-round, plus another 20 to 24 seasonal staff who work full-time in the summer and winter—the organization’s full-service seasons. In the spring and fall, the huts are self-service: visitors can use the kitchens to cook their own meals. “Company culture has become so important in retaining good staff, showing there is room for advancement, professional development, and time for time off,” Ouellette says. Maine Huts and Trails has entered into a partnership with the Chewonki Foundation, which operates summer camps in Wiscasset. “[Chewonki president] Willard Morgan has this incredible vision of establishing a staff- sharing model for seasonal nonprofits,” she says. “Some key Chewonki people could potentially apply to work at Maine Huts in the winter.” In another partnership, Maine Huts and Trails recently signed a ten-year agreement with Colby College to operate as an offsite interdisciplinary learning center, primarily for the environmental studies and economics departments. The huts offer a platform for environmental research, as well as the study of the organization itself, says Ouellette. “One of the big things is our energy system, but also environmental impact over time, and the economic development side of it, how we enhance our connectivity to communities.”

Ouellette’s tourism-marketing experience is evident in her ideas for Maine Huts and Trails—she identifies an interest, such as farm-to-table cooking, and ways the organization can tap into it. “One of the things we see as having great potential for us is the whole focus on health and wellness,” she says. “We talk about Maine Huts as an outlet for outdoor recreation, but you’ve got this whole bigger piece now of healthy lifestyles, which also means spending time with family, unplugging.” Cell phones tend not to work at the huts, and their use is discouraged. “We get feedback from guests like, ‘I spent time with my kids playing a board game,’” Ouellette says. Promoting the value of vacation is also linked to wellness. A board member of the U.S. Travel Association, Ouellette is inspired by its initiative Project: Time Off, which seeks to prove, through research, that taking vacations benefits individual and company performance. “How can we work with businesses in Maine to encourage their people to take vacation and come to a hut and just unplug?”

Partnerships, community engagement, creative marketing, and memorable meals are all about making sure Maine Huts and Trails is “in the mix,” says Ouellette. “Whether it’s as a model, or a place to learn, or a place to just come visit—whatever it is that’s keeping us in the forefront and helping us grow.” After wanting to live in a cabin off the grid as a girl, Ouellette has found her happy home in the wild and beautiful mountains of western Maine, and wants to share it with the world.